RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — A nationwide shortage of chemotherapy drugs has cancer patients here in the Triangle on edge. The shortage affects drugs that hundreds of thousands of patients depend on.
When doctors diagnosed Janice Anderson with peritoneal cancer, she knew she’d be in for a battle. “I have a 12-year-old son that I would like to see grow up, so I want to try to fight this the best way possible,” said the university professor, who lives in Durham.
Her treatment consists of chemotherapy and surgery, but cancer patients across the country are facing an obstacle they never expected.
“The last thing we thought about, certainly, would be access to chemotherapy drugs,” said Anderson’s wife, Paige.
Carboplatin, one of Anderson’s chemo drugs is in short supply along with other types of chemotherapies that treat gynecologic cancers, breast, lung, prostate, head and neck, and childhood cancers, among others.
“Cisplatin and carboplatin are literally the backbone of our treatments for newly diagnosed cancers,” explained Dr. Angeles Alvarez Secord, a professor of gynecologic oncology at Duke Cancer Institute and the president of the Society of Gynecologic Oncology. There is a nationwide shortage of both of those drugs along with more than a dozen other chemotherapy treatments.
Dr. Wendy Brewster, director of the Center For Women’s Health Research and associate director of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, said these are the drugs that can cure people. “These are the drugs that we believe give the patients the opportunity to walk through that cure door, and that is what makes this particular shortage critical,” she noted. “The concern is the shortage is really going to set us back, and it’s going to set us back in a way where our patients who live in rural areas or have fewer resources are able to get drugs.”
Brewster, who is going through cancer treatment herself, said doctors in the UNC system continue to give carboplatin to the patients who need it most; other patients can receive cisplatin, which, she says, is equally effective, but causes more side effects and requires more treatments. “They are, in some way, paying a price for the shortage, and the price will be the side effects they may feel or the frequency with which they need to be treated,” she explained.
Because Janice was recently diagnosed, she’ll continue to receive carboplatin, but her family worries about treatments later this summer.
“Will we be able to actually have access to carboplatin at that time or will it be cisplatin or another drug or another drug that they’ll need to substitute,” wondered Paige Anderson.
The couple also worries about other cancer patients, who aren’t able to continue getting carboplatin.
“We’re in a fortunate situation to even be prioritized,” said Paige Anderson. “To think about the families that just have to hear, ‘I’m sorry you can’t go forward with this; we have to pivot,’ is just heartbreaking.”
Alvarez Secord said there are numerous complex reasons for the drug shortages, but one of the factors is that generic drugs are not very profitable. “Their revenue generation is very low,” she noted. She said the Society of Gynecologic Oncology is working to get drugs to people who need them, especially in rural areas, and working to try to prevent future shortages. “We’ve actually taken this all the way up to the legislators,” she said.
“We need to start prioritizing lives over big profits,” added Janice Anderson. “It’s not fair to people who are trying to fight a good fight and have good outcomes.”